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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

First Lady's Outing Is a Class Act

Education: She underlines importance of child care by touring Harlem school. It's her first public appearance since sex allegations emerged.

January 27, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN and JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — The first lady of the United States walked into a classroom at Harlem's Harriet Tubman School Monday to find the students studying "the four values": honesty, caring, respect and responsibility.

"Boy, that's a big word, 'responsibility,' isn't it?" asked Hillary Rodham Clinton.

That word provided a metaphor for Mrs. Clinton's first venture into the public arena since allegations surfaced last week that her husband had had an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

By visiting one of Harlem's innovative after-school programs, Mrs. Clinton was demonstrating her responsibility for the Clinton administration's proposed $21-billion child care initiative.

Far more important, in the view of some of the hundreds of Harlem residents who stood on the street to cheer her, she was proving to the world that, no matter what, she is a responsible wife who stands by her man.

"When you love someone, you stand up for them," said 64-year-old Rita Willoughby, who lives in a housing project opposite this large public school. "So I do admire her. I do support her. And I do fully agree with her."

Just hours after she had literally stood by her husband as he once again denied accusations of sexual misconduct, the first lady resolutely ignored the simmering controversy and focused on a reading proficiency program run by the YMCA here. Wearing a suit the color of daffodils, she waved to a crowd that chanted its support: "We're with you, Hillary."

Mrs. Clinton's trip to Harlem was planned weeks in advance, and in many ways it mirrored hundreds of previous such visits.

But the 40-minute meeting with students, teachers and parents here was inevitably different. It brought a welcome respite from the unrelenting pressures of a White House--indeed, an entire nation--that seems consumed by sex allegations surrounding her husband.

Away from Washington, away from the obsessive focus on the state of her marriage, Mrs. Clinton got right to work on child care, an issue she has championed since her days as a children's rights activist more than a quarter of a century ago.

In one classroom, students were asked to write out their dreams on large squares of orange construction paper. Struggling to express his thoughts, one child wrote the word "hate." Mrs. Clinton took it upon herself to help him edit his work. The final version came out: "I have a dream that one day I will change the way that people act."

Sometimes, Mrs. Clinton told the students, composition is only part of the challenge.

"Learning how to spell is a lot easier than stopping people from hating you," she said.

She helped 9-year-old Danquan Love with his spelling as he wrote, "I have a dream, I visited my grandmother in her grave, and she told me to keep my eye on wanting to be a teacher and to not live in the streets."

Then Mrs. Clinton praised the boy and his classmates, telling them, "You all have very good ideas."

The feeling was apparently mutual. Nine-year-old Patrice Villafan said, "I wish she was my mother." Nakita Paulson, also 9, said she liked the way Mrs. Clinton went around the table and invited students to share their views. The girl acknowledged, however, that current events in Washington might be sending a confusing message to some children.

"What they say he did with that girl, that's a bad example, and we might copy off him," she said. Then she added: "I have a good feeling about Bill Clinton. I don't know the truth, and they still got their diamond rings on."

In a meeting later with a handful of invited guests, Mrs. Clinton returned to the haunting sentence crafted by Danquan Love. "Think about that, and think about how we want to give those messages to our children. But we can't just tell them, we have to show them. We can't just preach at them. We've got to work with them."

Focusing on the business at hand, Mrs. Clinton also pledged that child care would be a centerpiece of the president's State of the Union message today.

Her appearance here was meticulously orchestrated, and Mrs. Clinton left the school as swiftly as she had arrived. Only a few reporters had been allowed to accompany her on her classroom tour, and there was no opportunity for questions as she arrived or departed.

The media mob stationed opposite the school was clearly more interested in Mrs. Clinton than in after-school child care. But if they were hoping for cracks in her stiff armor of public composition, they were disappointed.

As she climbed into her limousine to head for a benefit dinner for UNICEF, Mrs. Clinton glanced toward demonstrators who chanted, "Leave Bill Alone!" "Thank you," she mouthed.

At the 50th anniversary celebration for UNICEF, Mrs. Clinton repeated that phrase four times in an attempt to staunch applause that kept her from beginning her address. As the group's honorary national chairwoman, she once again was among admirers.

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